Saturday, April 12, 2008

At what point does the Asian immigrant become an Asian American?

I recently finished Ha Jin's latest novel A Free Life (2007). This novel is Jin's first set completely in the U.S. discussing life as a Chinese immigrant. I was going to include a link to the NY Times Book review, but I found this one by a blog called "Hallucina" that I think gives a very good summary of what the book does in terms of its adherence to the themes of immigration and living as an immigrant in the U.S. (click here).

I liked the novel--I actually liked it better than any of the other things I've read by Jin (his award winning novel Waiting, his collection of short stories Ocean of Words and The Bridegroom). There was a bleak repetition, for me, of these works in their themes dealing with Communist China of the 1970s and 1980s and with the bleakness of much of the characters' lives.

I suppose, in some ways, these themes continue in his latest novel. But for some reason, I found them more compelling--and I agreed with Hallucina--that one of the most powerful things about this novel is recognizing that regardless of whether people are living in China or America, their humanity is always with them--which is to say, the difficulties of being human follow you in the U.S. just as they do in China. This novel isn't going to be for everyone--its over 600 pages, although each chapter is only 3-6 pages long, which makes it feel as if it's easier to read or that it reads faster than it probably does. Perhaps I appreciated the descriptions of writing--the challenges of trying to be an artist and the compromises you have to make between the prosasic needs of putting food on the table versus the poetry you want your life to be immersed in.

But really, what I wanted to write about today was the question in this post's title: When does an Asian immigrant become an Asian American? In Ha Jin's case, to be more exact, when did he start to become a Chinese American writer instead of a Chinese writer? These questions are hard to tease out, in some way, for Jin because one could say that it was either his taking on, finally, Chinese American issues in his writing. Or it could be the fact that he became a naturalized American not long ago, officially becoming a Chinese American citizen.

But lets say, for argument's sake, that Jin had not become naturalized--that he continued to write about China in his fiction. Does this make him a Chinese writer versus a Chinese American writer? Must Chinese American writers write about Chinese American or Asian American subjects? How long does a Chinese immigrant have to live in the U.S. to become acculturated to American customs--and does that acculturation make one an American?

If we believe that the quality of being "American" isn't simply found within a legal document, then is it a length of time that makes one an American--to have lived here for five or ten years? Is it the fluency of one's English or the embrace of certain cultural and societal values that makes one an American?

One can make the argument that for Asian Americans, immigrant generation or otherwise, the stereotype of being "forever foreign" plagues them. But if we assume that this is not the case--if we look at other immigrant groups, Jamaicans, Germans, Ghanaian, Peruvians--at what point do they become Americans? Does it differ ethnic group to ethnic group or person to person? Does it depend on whether they are living in ethnic enclaves of their natal lands or where they are the "only ones"--or does it matter that they are in urban vs. suburban vs. rural areas?

Or, does it matter, at all--the question, that is--since it seems that regardless of what legal papers you hold, claiming America, changing from immigrant to settler, is always a state of mind and always depends on how others perceive you as much as how you perceive yourself in your newly adopted homeland.

Still, it would seem to be easier to be a settler rather than an immigrant if you are a white immigrant or if you are already fluid in English and familiar with Western customs. Or if you have money. Money does seem to be the key factor in all forms of assimilation and belonging.


Cipher said...

absolutely hated this novel; except for the one thing -- a lot took place in atlanta

found it over-indulgent and rather long-winded and had ha jin actually READ a considerable number of asian american writers writing about the asian american experience, he might have actually had a more "original" or "dynamic" approach

atlasien said...

I've thought about this a lot.

I think that when an adult moves to any other country, they become of that country only when they fully emotionally commit to it. That's a vague standard, but I think it mostly works.

Some people who moved against their will, like refugees, are never going to commit. No matter if they spend 50 years in the new country, they're always going to think of themselves as of the old country.

On the other end of the scale, very privileged people will often never really commit. They would be giving up too much. They'll live and die as "expatriates".

For example, If I moved to Japan and fully emotionally committed to being Japanese, that would mean such things as 1) making a serious effort to learn the language 2) taking part in Japanese society 3) working to fix Japanese problems because they also become my own problems 4) preparing to take the bad along with the good 5) believing I had certain rights and duties as a Japanese. Perhaps this project would fail and I wouldn't be able to actually accomplish all these things. But at least I would have committed to them.

Kazuo Ishiguro has a compelling description of how this process worked for him. He moved from Japan to England when he was a small child. His parents always told him they'd be returning to Japan any year, but never did. He felt like he lived in a Japan he kept in his heart, not England. As he left childhood he said goodbye to this personal Japan and committed to being English.

The kind of perspective I'm describing is more psychological and emotional than social. But like you say, what the individual thinks, and what society thinks of the individual, are often two very different things. And they definitely influence each other.

John B. said...

I found your blog via the Academic Blog Wiki and thought I would introduce myself and my own blog, in which I address miscegenation (both racial and cultural) in the Americas. It's called Domestic Issue. With your permission, I'd like to link to you over there.

As for this post's question, I'd second atlasien's comment. Back in the '80s I lived in Mexico for 2years, and by the end of that time I could easily have decided to stay on there. If it hadn't been for the siren song of grad school . . . But as s/he says, one has to want to make that choice internally, no matter the quantity or quality of social ties one has to that place.

CVT said...

John b. -

Quick question - any particular reason you use the term "miscegenation" for your research? I, for one, have all sorts of negative connotations associated with that term - and hearing it in the context of academics gives me automatic assumptions about how you feel about it (especially coming from a "very white" person, as you put it in your blog).

From checking out your site, however, I don't think that's your intention (or where you're coming from, necessarily), so I was wondering if there was a reason you didn't go with another term . . .

CVT said...

Cipher -

If Ha Jin is writing from his own experience, why would he have to read OTHER Asian-American writers beforehand? Your experience is your experience, and if it happens to overlap with experiences of other people, that doesn't make it less "original" . . .

As for over-indulgence and long-windedness . . . to me, that makes more sense to criticize if that's how you felt about it.

John B. said...

Thanks for visiting my blog and for your question. I'll not respond here, but you're right about two things: First, I don't think of it as a pejorative term at all; second, it does indeed have a vexed history for many. I really should address your question more fully, though, and I'll do so over at my blog.

Cipher said...


why is he writing about his own experience? it seemed to me the novel was quite allegorical and it seemed to me given the expansive nature of the actual plotline, he might have actually then tried to do more with it...

also just because one has an experience doesn't give one the right to even publish about it LOL; i mean i really believe that publication is an honor and something to not be considered lightly; at the same time, i don't think ha jin was being flippant; i just don't think it's very knowledgeable about the tradition he is writing within and i think it matters quite a bit... there are instances in the text where the character seems to be quite cognizant of an emergent ethnic tradition, like submitting his poetry to yellow leaves, but regardless, it still felt rather haphazard

overlap *IS* an issue precisely because of what we decide to place value on; i can think of tons of other asian american writers who deserve much more critical attention for pieces that serve to investigate many similar themes, but won't ever get picked up because they are either from a smaller publishing house, or what not

Jennifer said...

AGHHH!!! I wrote this LONG comment and then Blogger told me there was an error and it didn't get saved (sigh).

So let me just say a big THANK YOU to everyone for leaving a comment and for this rich discussion.

Normally I would reply to everyone, but let me just take a moment to make 3 comments out of fear that I will once again have this deleted:

1) Atlasien, as always I think your comments are thoughtful and right on the money--I esp. like what you say about an "emotional commitment."

2) Cipher/CVT, so much to say about Ha Jin, but I think Cipher is wearing his "lit crit" hat and pointing out something I think is also problematic: a certain desire, on the part of a general American readership, to want Asian immigrant narratives.

3) John B., thanks for visiting and thanks for the shout out on your blog. I took a look at your blog and I also have to say, to reinforce CVT's comments, that I had similar questions about using the term "miscegenation"--so I look forward to reading your blog post and I am now inspired to write a post about loaded terms (because I want to revisit the "concentration camp" issue from 2 days ago).

Cipher said...

sorry if i seem so crotchety; i just felt robbed after the 650 or so pages of reading it... sure it's a visceral reaction to the text, that's probably not entirely fair and i acknowledge it and truth be told, i'd rather have this book in print than not because it gives me something to talk about HAHAH

in other news, I just read Free Food for Millionaires and I didn't like so I've decided that Jen and I don't have similar tastes in Asian American lit at all LOL

HAHA *wink*

Jennifer said...

What do you MEAN you didn't like FREE FOOD FOR MILLIONAIRES??? REALLY!! I mean, I did think that Casey got tiresome--I mean, c'mon girl, STOP SHOPPING! Don't buy that expensive first edition book, not only because you're going to end up losing it but because you can't afford it--just stop already!

But you know what, I also really liked her. Parts of her. Her life was messy--and it was definitely not a model minority life, so I thought in that way the author was doing something a bit different.
Anyway, you can either share what you didn't like about the book here or wait until you see me and we can duke it out over lit (although I'll give you Ha Jin--I wasn't crazy about him to begin with--I just found A FREE LIFE so much more appealing than the dreadful WAITING and the even more depressing OCEANS OF WORDS and I seem to be one of the few people not to get him--because really, I don't get what others get in his writing.

The Constructivist said...

On the commitment thing, I think it can cut various ways. I can't remember now whether it was Stuart Hall's or Paul Gilroy's story first about the Tory politician who defined British immigrants' lack of commitment by criticizing their fan loyalties when it came to cricket (missing the obvious point that liking cricket at all perfectly establishes your Britishness so as to define Englishness as something quite different). So something I endorse on the personal level (I've thought the same thing about moving to Japan) can get twisted around on the political level. Or become a self-advertisement like it sometimes seems it does for Bharati Mukherjee.

I wonder if David Palumbo-Liu's Asian/American might offer some useful insights on the broader questions that Jennifer is raising, not that I've gotten around to reading it yet!

Personally, I like a work like Karen Tei Yamashita's Tropic of Orange for its attempt to put various migratory trajectories in relation and for its appropriations of multiple literary/cultural styles, traditions, and conventions--and ability to make you care about characters you never thought you'd end up liking (Emi)....

Monster Paperbag said...

I've only read his Waiting and enjoyed it. I'll check this one out, too.

Jennifer said...

Hi Monster Paperbag,
Thanks for leaving a comment. The truth is, unless you really like Ha Jin, I think there are better 600+ page Asian American novels to check out. For example FREE FOOD FOR MILLIONAIRES by Min Jin Lee. Or RED EARTH POURING RAIN by Vikram Chandra or even the monster of all novels A SUITABLE BOY by Vikram Seth (clocks in at 1400+ pages).

For less time on your hands I'd suggest A LONG STAY IN A DISTANT LAND by Chieh Chieng or BEHOLD THE MANY by Lois Ann Yamanka.